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The Celtic Monks that Saved Civilization, Part I

The Celtic Monks that Saved Civilization, Part I

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher looks at the Irish monks, the monasteries they created, and their role in preserving the written works of western culture.

The Monks That Saved Civilization


A Monk At His Work

Everyone today owes a debt of gratitude to the Irish monks. It was they—as the barbarians invaded the continent, bringing anarchy, plunder, and constant warfare—who kept safe the written record of western civilization. Thus concludes Thomas Cahill in his book, How the Irish Saved Civilization.

But how did this come about? Before Patrick, ancient Ireland was feared as the place that sent raiders to steal children from their beds in the dead of night. It was where wild men, painted blue, with starched, spiked hair, ran naked and screaming into battle. And before Patrick, the island of Celts was mainly illiterate, using a primitive form of runes for boundary markers. It was only Patrick who began the process of bringing the written word to Ireland. This was the land at the end of the world, the island at the westernmost edge of Europe, beyond which, “There be monsters”. How did such a land produce Celtic monks and monasteries that would become bastions of scholarship?

The Monasteries Began with St. Patrick

The monastic movement in Ireland probably began with St. Patrick. We’ve told his story in previous posts. If he had studied on the Gallic Island of Lerins in the Mediterranean, as seems likely, then he would have been introduced to the monastic way of life. It was barely beginning on the continent. After his death, this trend only increased among the Irish who were only too ready for a new kind of martyrdom.

“Green Martyrdom”

As Thomas Cahill tells us, with the introduction of Christianity many new Christians looked for a kind of “green martyrdom”. Denied the red martyrdom of death by blood, they looked to become a living sacrifice for Christ—to become “a green martyr”. Their willingness is explainable when we understand that within the Irish character are strains of melancholy mixed with wild abandon. (Ah hah, is that where I get it from?) As G.K. Chesterton once said,

“For the great Gaels of Ireland,
Are the men that God made mad.
For all their wars are merry,
And all their songs are sad.”

In a previous post we talked about how Celtic women sometimes sought celibacy as a way to dedicate their lives to Christ. Sometimes, they even banded together into communities of virgins. The same was true of men. And when they joined a monastery, they became part of a community of learning and scholarship. The monasteries began with the intent to live in isolation—witness the number of beehive stone huts scattered throughout the Emerald Isle. But these huts, big enough for only a single individual, ended up being clustered in communities of monks.


The Monks’ Beehive Stone Huts on Skellig Michael

From Hermitage to Monastery

Within these new monastic communities, the Celtic monks accepted noble and commoner alike. Not only for service in the cloister, but also just to learn and study. That is what the Venerable Bede, an English historian, tells us. Thus did these Celtic monasteries establish centers of scholarship.

In the sixth century, Kevin of Glendalough began as a hermit living in a rock cave. But he ended up with a community of  monks living all around him. For Kevin they built a beehive stone hut. For themselves, single mud huts. For the community, a small church. Each lived by himself in his own small dwelling. At appointed hours, they gathered together to recite the Psalms and pray.

Word spread, and people arrived from all over, just to learn. On the continent, many lands were dealing with war and chaos. Political leadership was constantly changing hands. So monasteries patterned after Glendalough eagerly accepted these scholarly refugees from a Europe in chaos. In the process, they took in a wide variety of people, ideas, and books. And in various places around Ireland, towns arose that were more like universities than monasteries.

Next time, we’ll continue our look at the way of the Celtic Monks, with Part II.

Sources for this post were How the Irish Saved Civilization by Kevin Cahill and The Course of Irish History by T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin.

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, follow the link above.